Words By: Adam Campbell
Photos By: Andrew McNab
On Saturday morning of April 17th, I got a text from Greg Hill that started with: “Crazy thought…” When an adventurous masochist like Greg messages you with those words there are only two appropriate reactions. One, it’s going to be a hard and wild ride and two, you better say yes.
With conditions looking perfect and more COVID related lockdowns seeming imminent, Greg invited me to join him and Andrew McNab, on a speed attempt of the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass ski traverse.
The “Bugs to Rogers” is one of Canada’s grand ski traverses connecting the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges to the jagged granite spires of the Bugaboos through a series of glaciers and high cols. The remote and committing ski mountaineering route is approximately 135 kilometers and has 11,000 plus meters of elevation gain with some great steep lines. It typically takes fit parties ten days to complete. The traverse was first completed in 1958 by Bill Briggs, Bob French, Sterling Neale and Barry Corbet, an incredibly proud effort given the technology and maps of the time. In 2005, Canadian ski mountaineering hardmen Jon Walsh, Troy Jungen and Douglas Sproul set a speed record of 80 hours on the traverse. The tales of that effort are legendary and the record has stood for over sixteen years with few serious known challenges to it.
As Douglas mentions in his definitive guide to the traverse, Uptracks, Bootpacks and Bushwhacks: “The traverse is normally done in a south to north direction. The advantages to this direction of travel are ascending frozen, southerly slopes and shredding northerly powder as well as rappelling the Deville Chimney as opposed to ascending it.”
However, as Jon, Douglas and Troy did, we chose to do the route in reverse to minimize exposure to solar slopes. What this would mean for us was that we would be ascending lots of great skiing, which can be translated as hours of trail breaking and route finding because we would be going against the regular flow of travel.
Greg and Andrew are ski touring endurance machines, mountain ninjas and the ideal partners for a challenge like this. Greg is widely known as the man who skied two million vertical feet in a year, as well as having countless first descents on hard and committing lines. Andrew was one of Canada’s best-ever ski mountaineer racers and has been quietly painting his own steep lines around the world over the past few years. Both of them had been dreaming about tackling this ski mountaineering challenge for over a decade. Greg and Andrew are both far better skiers than me.
I am known more as an ultra-runner, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria in West Africa — not exactly a ski mountaineering hot bed. However, over the past six-years I have dedicated myself to ski touring with a special love of endurance challenges. This past winter, I have had over a hundred days in the backcountry and was feeling fitter than I had in years.
Jon Walsh, an occasional climbing and ski partner, as well as a mountain mentor of mine, had been pushing me to try this traverse for a couple of years. It is a daunting distance and time to be out there — however the seed had been planted and now the perfect opportunity presented itself, so we all agreed that it was worth a try.
Not really sure what we would encounter, or how long it would take us, and with very little time to prepare, we packed enough food for 3.5 days, or around 15,000 calories each, made up of three freeze dried meals, some samosas, cheese and meat sticks and enough sugary sports food to fuel a big city marathon. Our food was the bulk of the weight in our packs. We had two stoves and three cans of fuel and one pair of steel crampons between the three of us. We each had a lightweight ice axe, two 30-meter light glacier ropes, glacier gear, standard avalanche gear, a radio, two inReaches, the world’s smallest medical kit, a tiny repair kit, some warm clothes, a pair of dry socks each, cellphones, two GoPros, a battery pack, headlamps and one printed map. Andrew and I had ski crampons, Greg carried a small emergency tarp and Andrew and I had small emergency bivvy sacks. We all carried half-sized foam pads for insulation from the snow. We did not carry a tent or sleeping bags. We choose to use skis that were approximately 78 underfoot – not full skimo race skis, but definitely not powder planks.
On Monday April 19th, at approximately 4:20am we set off for an alpine journey none of us will soon forget. We had incredible travel conditions and stability as Andrew and Greg masterfully stitched together a high route traverse that kept us out of the valley bottoms where warm snow would slow our progress. We covered a lot of ground on our first day, arriving at the Kingsbury Hut after 19.5 hours. We had hoped to stay there, but another party beat us to it, so at midnight we dug a 1.5 by 1-meter hole in the snow, crawled into our backpacks to keep our feet warm, pulled the tarp over us and shivered, not really sleeping, regretting our lack of comfort a sleeping bag, or down pants would have provided, and huddled together trying to sneak any ounce of comfort we could from our snow tomb until 4am.
After a quick camp break, we made our way through the more rugged and exposed sections of the Purcell mountains catching our second sunrise of the trip. The sleepless night and long day prior, my biggest ever day of ski touring to date, caught up with me mentally. Still dealing with post-traumatic stress from the death of my wife in an avalanche last year, I cracked on a steep and exposed snow slope boot pack. I had to ask for a rope to help me ascend it and on the subsequent exposed rocky traverse over to a col on Snowman Peak, I fully broke down in tears. Greg and Andrew were incredibly understanding and compassionate, but also task focused, knowing we had to descend the slope baking in the sun to stay safe. Once down safely on the glacier below, as we boiled some water for coffee and stuffed our faces, they asked if I was okay and if I felt I could continue. I said yes, but the emotional toll of that moment wore me out further and for the rest of the trip I would lag further and further behind, slowing Greg and Andrew.
As the physical and mental fatigue continued to build, I started to catastrophize situations, getting stuck into a mental trap where I focused on the worst possible outcome. I became increasingly, and at times overly cautious in all technical sections not wanting to risk an accident. As we covered more and more exposed high alpine terrain, I marvelled at my partners’ comfort and mastery of movement and dwelled on my own ineptitude. They set a blistering pace, while breaking trail in boot deep powder trying to avoid having to shiver through another night as I continued to lag behind. For several hours I had to fight to convince myself to enjoy the process of moving one foot in front of the other, but mostly I stayed in a mental black hole. As the kilometers crawled by and with our end-point still hours away, the reality of another night out became more real.
Not wanting to sleep in a snow cave for a second night, we had our eyes set on the Malloy Igloo, a rudimentary survival shelter on the Malloy Glacier at the edge of Osprey Peak, to give us some respite. Getting there required a long slog across the Conrad Icefield.
As the sun set on another day with several hours of travel in front of us, I reminded myself how special this experience was and convinced myself to try and make the most of this journey because I may never get an opportunity like this again. The lack of technicality on this stretch seemed to give me a mental break and despite the building fatigue, my mind started to come around and I began to enjoy and appreciate the journey again.
We walked across the interminable glacier through the night, alternating resting our heads on our poles as the lack of sleep and fatigue alternatively caught up with us. We began to hallucinate, seeing shapes in the ice formations as we moved towards an ever-distant horizon. Despite the mental strain, we shared a magical moment as all three of us saw a shooting star dart across the sky, confirming its existence, with an incredible blue, red and yellow tail trailing behind it.
As we crested the final col before the hut, we got to enjoy a beautiful boot-top deep powder run to our shelter. We hooted and hollered into the dark vastness of the icefield. We got to our fibreglass sanctuary around midnight, after another 19.5-hour day. While the shelter offered protection from the howling wind, it was far from warm. Not having sleeping bags, we were left with the eternal alpine climber’s dilemma, to spoon or not to spoon? After trying to tough it out on opposite ends of the shelter, our egos succumbed to our shivering and we opted to huddle together on the floor, hoping our combined mass would cut some of the cold, which it did…slightly….
We survived another sleepless night, our egos intact but humbled by the physical task we had undertaken. The next morning, around 4am, we laughed as we brewed our final coffee, knowing that we only had a few small climbs ahead of us. We set off quickly and crossed the Malloy glacier at sunrise and were rewarded with our first view of the world-famous granite spires of the Bugaboos. We had one final long climb up to the Bugaboo – Snowpatch col and a final steep descent down it before traversing over the Bugaboo glacier and enjoying a perfect corn run to the valley below us.
After a relatively short walk through the forest, we arrived at the Trailhead at 9:40am, 53 hours and 20 minutes after we started. Our friend Brodie snowmobiled up the snowy road with chips and beer for us. We celebrated as we skied and walked the final two kilometers to a point where we could get picked up.
It was a memorable journey for me in so many ways. I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Andrew and Greg for their guidance, understanding, strength and patience while out there. I received a lifetime of knowledge from them and made two incredibly good friends from the experience. It was a trip none of us will ever forget. I am glad I said yes to that text and I look forward to answering yes to the next one – although next time I might suggest a sleeping bag!